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Surviving a most difficult week

Gary Caruso | Friday, September 22, 2006

Oh Charlie, say it was not nearly 50 points that buried the Irish. Bill, how could you get shut out as early as the second game after your Super Bowl victory – on no less than a Monday night? For those of us Notre Dame graduates with roots in the Pittsburgh area, it has been an agonizingly long week of football shock and disbelief. In fact, I am still wearing the brown paper bag over my head as I type this column. Even the eye holes do not coincide with my line of sight. Agony knows no limits.

A football “expert,” a.k.a. bookie, I know is wearing his paper bag as well – more to hide from his clients than face the world. In his profession’s macrocosm last week, everyone favored the Jaguars over the Steelers. He likes to call his early season setback an “incentive” for his happy clients, one that returns many dividends later in the season. I am not certain that I have any incentives after last week.

At season’s start I told my football “expert” friend that the football gods were teasing me with Charlie Weis. First he broke my heart when as a Patriots coach his team eliminated the Steelers from appearances in the Super Bowl. With his departure to Notre Dame, Head Coach Bill Cowher and the Steelers finally overcame the Weis obstacle. Charlie was now on my side, and I could hardly wait for the many wins and national championships he would shepherd to South Bend. But alas, last week he broke my heart again … damn those football gods.

Last weekend NBC offered a confusing, almost schizophrenic dilemma for my fellow Western Pennsylvania alumni with their airing of detailed comparisons of Weis protégés, the “Brady Boys.” Both are so competent and excel in their overall performances. Yeah, I hate Brady. And yeah, I love Brady.

I’ve never been, like so many who can be called a “Domer,” that Notre Dame alumnus with the special football talent of quoting every season statistic, every opponent record and every play of every game ever recorded in Irish history. It wasn’t long ago that I finally learned how to spell, “Roethlisberger.” I had scheduled another spelling study hour this week to learn “Samardzija.” Now what’s the use?

It occurs to me as my brain slowly sizzles from the steam caught within my brown paper bag that while sports plays a major role as recreation, it is only entertainment. The best efforts of those in the arena sometimes excel and sometimes fall flat. Gaining only a handful of rushing yards like both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame did last week is a game-defeating factor, but not the end of life. In fact, compared to the starvation, death and violence throughout the world today, embarrassment on the field is nothing.

Notre Dame alumnus, Vietnam hero and Steeler great Rocky Bleier taught me the value of leaving my brown paper bag under the sink. During the Steelers’ Super Bowl dynasty of the 1970s, my 16-year-old neighbor lay dying of cancer. His wish was to meet Bleier. While on the road with the team, Bleier called my neighbor before his death. Tears still well in my eyes as I recall the kind gesture.

Coach Weis is no stranger to selfless acts of kindness either, having called a young cancer patient’s football play during a game. Weis knows that while his job is to win games and championships, the game still needs to be kept in its proper perspective. Last week’s game reminds me of the scene in Tom Cruise’s high school football movie, “All the Right Moves.” The coach teaches Cruise to defend against the pass by going after the opposing player, not the ball. In the game, Cruise tries to intercept the ball, misses and the man he was covering scores the winning touchdown. After the game, Cruise could have used a plastic bag over his head.

From all outward appearances last week, both Cowher and Weis reacted as a wise sage would in a similar situation. Cowher knows that a pass sailing a foot beyond Hines Ward’s hands at the goal line is rust between a quarterback and receiver that will disappear. Weis knows that a pass tipped by his receiver into a Michigan interception that started a scoring snowball will melt in future games. Preparation, perspective and performance are hallmarks of both coaches and teams. For us fans, paper or plastic is never an option.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.